In Merchant of Venice, Antonio repeatedly talks about giving his life up for Bassanio. First he is willing to have a pound of his flesh cut off, and then, in act 5 swears upon his soul that Bassanio will never break Portia's faith.

What would you call a person who is willing to give up their life for others?

  • 1
    "What would you call someone" could be interpreted as requiring a noun or an adjective. Please say which you want. A noun might be "martyr and an adjective might be "self-sacrificing". Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 13:29
  • A hero. Not every hero dies, but all heroes are willing to risk their life for the greater good.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 19, 2020 at 19:13

4 Answers 4


We do not have a specific noun that means "a person who would die for another person". The best we can do are words that describe more broadly such a person's traits and character. For instance, you could say someone is a hero (someone with great courage who does noble acts) or that they are selfless (they care less for themself than for others).

The closest English word for "giving up your life for someone else" would be sacrifice. To "sacrifice" means to give up something of value to you, usually for the sake of some ideal, belief, or other person/entity. This word is often used when someone dies for someone else, because what of greater value can you give up for someone else than your life?

We still run into problems with using this as a noun to "mean a person who is willing to die for someone else", though.

  • Firstly, even as a noun, "sacrifice" is a direct reference to the action taken, as opposed to a trait or state of mind, so it only applies once it has actually occurred: being willing to endanger your life for someone else is not enough, you have to actually do it in order to be a sacrifice. If you want to talk about intent you have to use the verb form in a phase like this: "He is ready to sacrifice himself for her."
  • Secondly, "sacrifice" is not usually used in noun form when referring to someone who is sacrificing themself. If you say someone is a "sacrifice" you usually mean that someone else is "sacrificing" them. (This is probably because of the word's link to religious practices involving killing a person or animal victim as an offering to a deity on behalf of someone else). Therefore, you probably wouldn't say: "Antonio was a sacrifice" if he died for you, because this implies you somehow did it to him on purpose or allowed it to happen. But you would say "Antonio sacrificed himself for me" or "Antonio made the sacrifice" or "Antonio was such a sacrificial person". In all of these cases the emphasis is changed slightly so that it is understood that Antonio chose to be a sacrifice for you, rather than that you forced him to be. We do have a derived term, self-sacrifice, that exists to help make this distinction, though you rarely hear this used as a noun applied to a person either. You might say "He is self-sacrificing" or "It was an act of self-sacrifice", but probably not "Antonio was a self-sacrifice."

You could say:

  • Not a noun though
    – Void
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 4:43
  • 2
    An Altruist.... Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 12:44
  • @stuartstevenson: ah.. never thought of it :p
    – Void
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 13:04

There is not really a single-word noun that fits what you are looking for in English. Some words come close (such as ‘sacrifice’ or possibly even ‘martyr’ (if it’s a cause or organization instead of a person that the individual is willing to give their life up for)), but they have different connotations and are almost always used after the person actually gives up their life.

However, it is possible to construct a relatively short noun-phrase (shorter at least than the description you gave) that conveys the intended meaning. Noun phrases are very common in English, and in a lot of cases are the preferred alternative to specialized nouns because they are often easier for most people to understand (classic example, almost nobody I know knows what ‘petrichor’ means (and it’s not even in most spell checkers), but ‘the smell after rain’ has the same meaning and is immediately understandable to almost anybody).

Going for the noun-phrase approach, one might use any of the following:

  • a self-sacrificing person’: This puts the focus on the fact that it is the person in question choosing to behave this way for some reason (maybe they have a moral obligation of some sort, maybe they really care for the person they are trying to protect, perhaps they just feel it’s the right thing to do).
  • a selfless person’: Similar meaning to the above, but less focused on the sacrificial aspect and more on them caring about others more than themselves.
  • In either of the above, one could replace ‘person’ with ‘guardian’ to focus more on an association with behaving this way to protect a specific person, group, or ideal.
  • In either of the above ‘protector’ also works in the same sense as ‘guardian’, though it usually should include a descriptor of what the person is selflessly protecting, and it almost always gets used for either a group or an ideal instead of a person. For example, one might talk about someone being a ‘selfless protector of their country’ or ‘selfless protector of their lord’s life’. Depending on context, calling someone a protector of something can imply this without needing an adjective like ‘selfless’.
  • an altruistic person’: Same meaning as ‘selfless’, though with potentially different connotations in some places (for example, where I live ‘altruistic’ has a decisively more formal tone than ‘selfless’, but doesn’t carry quite as strong of a meaning), and it doesn’t work as well with ‘guardian’ in place of ‘person’.

Antonio is a friend.

No one has greater love than this, that one should lay down his life for his friends. -J. 15:13

That is:

Someone who is not an enemy and who you can trust -Cambridge dictionary

  • 2
    'Friends' are often selfish, aren't they?
    – Void
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 16:49
  • @Void Yes, but that is a defect, not a feature. One always wishes for unselfish friends, but I for one find it much more difficult to be the kind of friend that I would like to have myself. Maybe there is a difference between an ideal friend and the friends we know?
    – Conrado
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 16:52
  • Probably.........
    – Void
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 16:55
  • I mean, if my neighbor jumps in to the water, although he can't swim, to get me out, and he dies in the attempt, I would say "He was a real friend".
    – Conrado
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 16:57

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